Life Course Antecedents of Premarital Conception in Great Britain

Article excerpt

In recent years, the concept of the life course has become an important framework within which research on human development has been structured. Human developmental and aging research has recognized the importance of events or patterns that characterize the early part of life. Out of this work has evolved the basic view of life processes as cumulative; even the earliest elements of individual lives can have a significant relation to later life events and processes (Elder, 1992). The present work applies this view to the birth of the first child. It asks what characteristics of the early life courses of individuals are significantly related to premarital fertility? Further, do early life course characteristics differentially affect the probabilities of a first birth within marriage versus out of wedlock?

Premarital fertility has been a controversial topic in recent years. It includes adolescent and nonmarital fertility as related research areas. Since the late 1950s, England and Wales have experienced continuing increases in the number and proportion of out-of-wedlock births among teenagers (Russell, 1982). These increasing numbers have important implications for the life courses of parents and their children (Trussell, 1988), as well as public economic and social policy (Furstenberg, 1991; Vinovskis, 1988). Most research has been concerned primarily with the consequences of premarital or early conceptions for the parent and child, but understanding the antecedents of premarital conception is equally important. A clearer understanding of groups that are at greatest risk for experiencing conceptions early in the life course will better inform the questions that are asked by researchers studying the consequences of such life experiences. Additionally, knowledge of the antecedents of early conceptions is critical for developing techniques for the recognition of young persons at risk.

A key feature of the analyses reported here is that they are based on a panel study of a birth cohort, the British National Child Development Study (NCDS). The NCDS has three virtues for the study of antecedents of premarital conceptions. First, most relevant research has been based on cross-sectional data, which rely on retrospective accounts of family background and the childhood home environment. The use of panel data corrects for these problems in research design. Second, most previous research has been conducted on women only, but the NCDS data allow the consideration of the fertility behavior of both men and women. Finally, the content of the NCDS data provides a rare opportunity to examine early life characteristics and experiences that have not been linked previously with fertility behavior. Unlike other panel data used to study fertility, the NCDS data provide information from the perspective of parents, teachers, and medical personnel, in addition to the cohort members, from the time of birth through young adulthood. Data from the NCDS thus enable a unique life course study of premarital conception.


In order to adequately review what is known about the possible factors that may be related to premarital conception, existing literature on both nonmarital and adolescent fertility is relevant. Since premarital conception is a specific type of nonmarital conception, and not all of any society's premarital conceptions occur among its teenagers, these bodies of research are both relevant to a discussion of the correlates of premarital conception.


Low socioeconomic status may be related to premarital conceptions in a number of ways. Persons of low socioeconomic background may have fewer material resources, in the form of contraception, or intellectual resources such as knowledge of reproduction and contraception, with which to prevent premarital pregnancies (Hanson, Morrison, & Ginsburg, 1989; Kahn & Anderson, 1992). Additionally, persons from low socioeconomic backgrounds may have different attitudes towards premarital fertility than those from more advantaged backgrounds. …